By Theo Harris, Special contributor to ProjectSpurs.com
What a difference four months can make in the balance of power in NBA. Now I’m not suggesting that the teams in the East have totally made up the chasm that exists in the level of talent with the West, but Eastern Conference games should be a lot more competitive and fun to watch this season . Here are four teams to watch in the upcoming year:
1) Detroit Pistons: After 5 consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Final Detroit stands poised to make another run at the conference. Chauncey Billiups and Rip Hamilton make up arguably the best backcourt tandem in the East. Billups is one of the best clutch shot makers in the league and Hamilton has the best ‘in-between game” for a guard in the association. The insurgence of young talent in Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo should allow Coach Saunders to rest his starting backcourt during the season. Look for Tayshaun Prince to continue to improve his offense and Jarvis Hayes should give them serviceable minutes. Still trying to make up for the loss of Ben Wallace, the question mark will be the frontcourt. It appears that Webber will take his services elsewhere and McDyess is a year older and closer to retirement. In addition, Rasheed Wallace’s act seems to be wearing thin on the Detroit brass. Looking past his volatility (for lack of a better word) his skills are beginning to erode. However, on a more positive note the word coming out of Detroit is that Wallace has come back from the off-season 25 lbs. lighter and a lot more motivated. Maybe they are trying to shop him to other teams. Jason Maxiell had a solid year last year and hopes to continue his growth. Also, they are very excited about Amir Johnson 6’9” power forward who spent the last couple seasons in the D-League. Some scouts rave about his development as he has been called the best “D-League player ever” (take that for what its worth). He is athletic and tough with a decent post game. It has been said that he would be a high lottery pick if he was in the draft this year. Detroit is still the best two way team in the East. They run the most cohesive offense and there defense (despite losing Big Ben) is still one of the best in the league. If they are able to control their emotions as a team they will be the favorite in the East;
2) The Cleveland Cavaliers: I mention this team out of respect for what Mike Brown and Lebron James accomplished last year. Lets focus on the positives aspects of the Cavs, #1) Lebron James, #2) Lebron James, #3) King James, #4) LBJ and #5) Old Lebron from the NIKE commercial. Seriously, what James did last year was nothing short of amazing. I would say about 70% of Cleveland’s offense runs through James. As an aside look for James to improve his mid-range game this year as well. His jumpshot looked very sound and much improved in the FIBA tournament. Last year Cleveland’s defense was the best in the East. Another positive from last year was that they were near the top in rebounding as well. Although, this could be symptomatic of there low FG% as a team. Their offensive can be abysmal when they are not hitting threes off of James’ penetrations. Don’t get me wrong, there is talent on this team, you don’t get to the Finals without having good players, but they don’t have any true All Stars outside of James. Last year, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas were solid contributors. Both had strong years offensively and in rebounding. Daniel Gibson was a good find for the team as he was stellar in the playoffs. Unfortunately, there will be several question marks this year for the Cavs. First and foremost, they did absolutely nothing to address the weaknesses of team over the off-season. They still need a proven point guard and consistent outside shooting. Further, they may lose Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavolvic to free agency (both may go back to Europe). The Cavs are a team in which the sum of its parts are better than the parts themselves. LBJ and there strength inside will keep them in the hunt, but their hold on the Eastern Conference crown seems tenuous at best.
3) The Baby Bulls: When I think of the Bulls one word comes to mind, “toughness”. Chicago mimics the attitude and demeanor of their coach Scott Skiles. They are as physical as any team in the NBA. Ben Wallace continues to control the paint and they have two tough hard nosed guards in Hinrich and Gordon. Small forward, Argentinean Andres Nocioni fits the toughness mold to a tee. In addition, they have great length and athleticism in forwards Luol Deng, Tyrus Thomas, Thabo Sefolosha and newcomer Joakim Noah. All of the aforementioned players should make the Bulls frontcourt a nightmare for opposing teams to handle. The Bulls are at times offensively challenged .Outside of Gordon all of their players have difficulty creating their own shots. They did not address this issue in the off-season, however with the overall growth of their young players they should be a very tough out next year playoffs;
4) The Boston Celtics: Now its time for everyone’s new favorite pick to come out of the East. You really can’t blame most prognosticators for their optimism. Whenever you have three future Hall-of-Famers on one squad you can’t help but like the teams chances for success. KG is one of the most complete players in the history of the game. Intense and ferocious he gives 100% on every play. Garnett is a great rebounder (he lead the league) and shot blocker who dominate other teams frontlines. Next there is “Jesus Shuttlesworth” (or Ray Allen), who has one of the sweetest strokes in the history of the game. Allen is much more than just a shooter, he is a scorer who has a nice dribble drive game with the ability to pull up off the bounce. He is also a better passer than he is given credit for and he plays a very intelligent floor game. Then there is Paul Pierce a great scorer with a solid all around game. Pierce has a great knack for getting to the foul line. The biggest test facing the C’s this year will be how much production Doc Rivers can get from the players beside his big three. The acquisitions of Posey and House will give the team a nice scoring punch off the bench. Also Kendrick Perkins and rookie Big Baby Davis will provide some rebounding and toughness .Moreover, lets see how quickly the point guards Rajon Rando and USC’s Gabe Pruitt develop as distributors. Initially, the C’s will struggle with chemistry, but by the All Star Break they should mesh into a solid Eastern Conference contender.